Stop beginning your reports with a cliché, said the Ed. "The more things change, the more they stay the same." I replied; because that was how things seemed in Belgium. The big news on drivers was that Webber would stay with Red Bull. We've commented before on the irony of a “yoof” brand employing a 35 year old driver, but although Webber wouldn't want to hear it, not only is he one of the best number number twos around, there is an elephant in the room on driver contracts: will Kubica recover? His latest operation was reported as a success and I'm sure all readers of this website hope for a 100% recovery. If he achieves that he's the only man capable of challenging Alonso and Vettel in the completeness of his talent, and there is no way he could want to stay long term with the increasingly second rate Renault team. So I would regard Webber at Red Bull and Massa at Ferrari as a good holding choice for 2012. This time next year might be exciting though....
Moving from the monkeys to the organ grinders, there's been a big change in the way the team bosses seem to behave. Probably influenced by the demise of Max and the rise of Jean Todt, they seem to be so friendly. On the TV coverage of Saturday practice I had the surreal experience of hearing Stefano Domenicali and Martin Whitmarsh having a genuinely warm hearted and friendly conversation. Rarely can anything as unexpected, as joyous and as unlikely have been seen since Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams appeared together sharing a joke. Fortunately, the on-track rivalry continued and, realistically, the only championship interest this year is whether Ferrari or McLaren will be second in the constructors' championship, and who will be second behind Vettel.
The next spectacular loss was Sutil in Q2. Just like the bloke in the curry house who boasts how he loves the hottest ones, but after asks for a big jug of water. So Sutil was interviewed on the Beeb, praising Spa for its challenging corners then spun off into the barriers in the wet Q1. It was a mild one – nose, couple of wheels, wing – probably easily fixable for under £100k. The red flag confused things a bit, and Button was a surprise Q2 drop-out. He was a bit more stoical about it than Hamilton would have been, and in fact Hamilton continued with the spoilt karting kid approach by pushing Maldonado out of the way at the Bus Stop on the way to a P1 in Q2. A minor flick from him on the slowing down lap proved too much for the Venezuelan, and he wheel tapped Hamilton and was duly penalized five places.
In Q3, Ferrari struggled a bit, and Massa's 4th was really as good as it was ever going to get, with Alonso behind Alguersuari (Minardi) and Senna (Toleman). Senna was showing that he was a worthy (not cash inspired) replacement for the lacklustre Heidfeld. Never exciting, I hope we've finally seen the last of this Journeyman's Journeyman in F1.
Two Red Bulls occupied the top three places. Watching the cars approach head on it was obvious that they were running more camber than the other teams. I'm sure I don't need to tell readers of this website that camber makes the tyre drag across the track, so works it and heats it. Heat means grip. Pirelli recommended a maximum of 4 degrees which Red Bull exceeded. Red Bull then became very concerned for the safety of their drivers (and not at all because the camber might wear the tyres and cause extra stops). They asked to change the camber without losing qualifying places because, as Adrian Newey said, driver safety is paramount. Permission was refused and so they started the race with the massive camber, so apparently safety is not paramount enough to lose grid places.
Normal service was resumed when Vettel took the lead and apart from pitstops, kept it to the end. The tyres blistered badly, but as always Newey managed everything and the cars made the finish.
It was only lap 5 and things hotted up for the Fazzas. Rosberg's run in a low drag special was coming to an end (actually he managed a very creditable 6th at the end, despite letting Schuey by for a happy anniversary 5th place) and Massa put him under pressure. However, Massa was a bit too close and as he eased back out of Les Combes. Alonso took advantage and passed through Bruxelles (or Rivage as we older folk still call it). The bad news for Massa continued as Hamilton passed him into Pouhon, giving an intimidating signature dirty nudge as he did so. To Massa's credit he could see it coming and moved to fight another day.
At around quarter distance Ferrari must have been optimistic. They had a good supply of tyres after qualifying conservatism, and the car was set up to finish the race with minimum pit stops. Even better, Alonso came out from his pitstop in front of Mark Webber. The race went downhill – literally – into Eau Rouge. The problem with Alonso is that he is so good that when he's squeezed he reacts so that nobody suffers. So Webber knew he could push Alonso into Eau Rouge, a move that would have been total disaster with a lesser driver or car. Once again, the older viewer thought heart in mouth of the tragic Bellof (the only real rival Senna would have had) and Ickx in 956s. In 2011, Webber came out in front, and Christmas card lists probably didn't change.
Just as Alonso thinks three steps ahead, so Hamilton, possibly an absolutely faster driver, shows his inferiority by thinking 3 steps behind. While DRS'ing (I can't call it passing) Kobayashi, he forgot that Kobayashi is, at heart, a 1980's Formula Ford driver and won't yield. So as Hamilton lined up for Les Combes he tagged Kobe's finest F1 driver and ended in the tyres. Know your opponent. The Safety Car came out (I can't work out why) and Vettel pitted immediately – excellent tactics. As the Safety Car came in, Rosberg passed Massa. Later, Vettel passed Alonso cleanly into Les Combes in a repeat of the Hamilton/Kobayashi scene but with drivers who know what they're doing. The difference was that these two think as they drive, as indeed does Massa when he let Button past rather than causing an incident into the Bus Stop. Interestingly, Button seemed to be without his right hand mirror which made the perception even more impressive.
Massa pitted on laps 30 and 32, having suffered a puncture. Sadly, when the car came out on 32 it looked what is technically known as 'orrible, being all over the road. Eight laps from the end, Alonso was running second. But the car looked slow on the harder tyres. It seems as though the Scuderia has been too conservative in suspension geometry and produced a car which can run most tyres effectively, whereas Red Bull have gone for a set up which comes close to destroying the tyre, but if it can just hang on, they'll win. Both Webber and Button passed Alonso in the usual DRS slot into Les Combes to leave him fourth, where he finished with Massa in a lacklustre eighth.
So what did Spa teach us? The race isn't won at the first corner, to finish first you first have to finish, know your enemy, and as long as the car can finish it can drop apart over the line. So, I'm sorry Mr Editor, the cliches remain, because they're true. There are, however, further trivial conclusions which I have by watching the post race TV coverage. There are few things more irritating than badly acted euphoria as evidenced by the increasingly tedious Vettel, and of all sports why does F1 consistently have the most embarrassingly ludicrous manifestations of facial hair? But the ultimate conclusion has to be, as we're in the Walloon region of Belgium and annoying both Belgians and the Editor is such fun, “plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.”
Stefano Domenicali: “We definitely cannot claim to be happy with this result, but we must evaluate it objectively, without letting emotion get the better of us. We saw our car perform in two different ways, depending on what tyres it was running: very good on the Soft, especially with Fernando, but definitely lacking with the Medium. This explains how Fernando, who delivered an extraordinary performance, taking the lead and fighting for the win in the first stint, then gradually saw what would have been a very well deserved podium place slip from his g.php. Felipe began his race in a very aggressive fashion, but then he paid an even heavier price for our chronic difficulties on the harder tyre."
Fernando Alonso: “It would have been difficult to do better than this fourth place today, especially given how much we suffered on the Medium tyres: in these conditions, we are a second and a half slower than the best. Honestly, I didn’t think I had a real chance of winning, but a podium was within our g.php.
Felipe Massa: “It was rather a strange race for me. In the opening phase I was absolutely in the fight for the top places, but then I started to have tyre problems and the car seemed to no longer be so well balanced. With the Mediums, the situation improved, maybe also down to an adjustment to the front wing which we made at the pit stop, but we were not quick enough, as was clearly evident and by then it was too late."